ACT OF OBLIVION by Robert Harris

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)

If one is looking for a volume that encompasses history with a touch of fiction to round out the storyline then Robert Harris is an author to be considered.  Of the many novels that Harris has written including a trilogy about the struggle for power in ancient Rome; FATHERLAND which raises the possibility of a deal between Adolf Hitler and President Joseph P. Kennedy in 1964; ARCHANGEL, which focuses on the northern Russian port that hides Joseph Stalin’s secrets; AN OFFICER AND A SPY, centers around the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France; V2, spotlights the Nazi missile program during World War II; MUNICH which delves into the September, 1939 conference which took place at the height of Anglo-French appeasement before World War II; and my favorite, CONCLAVE concentrating on the Vatican machinations in electing a new Pope. 

Harris’ fifteenth and latest novel is his first foray set predominantly in America, ACT OF OBLIVION which begins in 1660 England where Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe flee England accused of being part of the plot that resulted in the execution of Charles I that marked the culmination of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II to the English throne.  As in all of his novels, Harris has the unique ability to blend historical figures with his own creations, developing absorbing plots that are counter factual at times, but also toes the historical line.  If you enjoy John Le Carrie, Alan Furst, Martin Cruz Smith, David Liss, Ken Follet or Len Deighton, Harris’ work will prove most satisfying as he possesses an uncanny knowledge of the historical period he chooses to develop for his stories based on sound research and character development. 

In his current effort Harris begins by introducing the reader to the general outline of the English Civil War in the 17th century that resulted in the beheading of Charles I on January 30, 1649, bringing to power Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.  The trial of Charles I and his ultimate death brought about a written death warrant, the Act of Oblivion that was signed by 59 men, including members of Parliament, Cromwell’s New Modern Army, and important politicians of the period.  Two of the signees were Colonel Edward (Ned) Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe.  As the novel evolves 57 of the 59 were either captured and executed, died of natural causes, or committed suicide.  Whalley and Goffe are the two that remained alive after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.  Enter Richard Naylor, one of the few made up characters in the story whose role throughout the novel is to hunt down any remaining regicides.

King Charles I, by Unknown artist - NPG 4516

King Charles I

The backdrop to the novel is religion and politics.  All the characters seem deeply religious, particularly Whalley and Goffe and those who would hide them from Naylor and the Privy Council.  Religion permeates the dialogue, politics, and emotions of the day as prayer, meeting houses, and conflict between Catholics and Puritans appear regularly as the story unfolds.  Whalley and Goffe escape England and leave their families in 1660 as they are about to be arrested.  This begins an odyssey that takes them across the Atlantic to Boston and into the Connecticut Valley hiding in Guilford, Hartford, and New Haven, Connecticut, and later Hadley, Massachusetts. 

Along the way Harris does a superb job developing characters such as John Davenport who led the New Haven colony and saw it as “God’s millennial kingdom;” Captain Thomas Breedon, a royalist, rich merchant; Sir George Downing, a chaplain in Cromwell’s army who turned out to be an English spy; John Ditwell, a member of parliament and judge at Charles I’s trial; Dan Gookin, lived near Harvard College and escorted Whalley and Goffe to America, and the Reverend John Russell, the leading political and religious figure in Hadley, Massachusetts.  There are many more characters, the most important being Naylor who takes on a role similar to Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as his intrepid nature and personal tragedy leads him to follow Whalley and Goffe from England to the New England colonies, Dutch New Amsterdam, Holland, at first by himself and a few others, later to return with four men o’war.

Harris’ character portrayals allow the reader to feel they know these individuals and their thoughts.  Harris spares no detail in telling his story and he is able to fill in the historical gaps by employing Colonel Whalley as he writes his memoir that includes his family, but most importantly fighting for Cromwell in the English Civil War and the reign that followed.  Harris’ portrait seems based on the biography of Cromwell written by historian Antonia Fraser and is balanced and accurate.  As Harris develops these characters he displays the lack of scruples revealed by many self-appointed Puritan ministers, those who fought for Cromwell and switched to support the restoration of Charles II, Royalist and Roundhead spies and a host of others.

Over time as Naylor fails to bring the two remaining regicides to England, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Edward Hyde orders him to end his search and become his private secretary as the English people have moved on from capturing Whalley and Goffe.  From that point on Harris focuses on Whalley and Goffe’s lives and actions as they still must remain in hiding.

Harris has excellent command of historical events and movements.  He is able to weave the British seizure of New Amsterdam and the resulting Anglo-Dutch naval war, the return to plague to England in 1665, the Great London Fire of 1666, and King Philip’s War of 1774 into his story that enhances the legitimacy of Harris’ work.  Other aspects that opened this reader’s eyes was the detailed description of how the regicides were executed.  English barbarism is on full display as bodies were dismembered and some body parts were returned to families as a warning.  The battles of the English Civil War are carefully described highlighting Cromwell’s strategy and the roles of Whalley and Goffe.  Also important, is how Harris paints the difficulties faced by colonists who left England for America.  Harris follows them into the western interior and analyzes why they settled where they did, how they dealt with Native-Americans, their survival of brutal winters, and their ability to grow food and ultimately build settlements.

The Execution of Charles I of England

(The Execution of Charles I of England / Artist unknown, Wikimedia // Public Domain)

Harris has written a fast paced wonderfully detailed story of a modern manhunt that weaves between Restoration era London and pre-revolutionary New England.  Harris brings the past to life through the writing and dialogue of his characters and personal details such as scratchy wigs, rough leather boots, and the sparseness in which people lived.  To his credit Harris does not allow himself to become entrapped by Christian doctrine in his storytelling and concentrates on the simplicity of faith and the anti-monarchical feelings of characters who will find a natural home among the dissenters and Puritans in New England.  ACT OF OBLIVION is a wonderful novel about a divided nation whose people suffer from physical and emotional wounds caused by war.  As Alex Preston writes in his The Guardian review of August 30, 2022, Harris has authored an important novel in that it shows the power of forgiveness and the intolerable burden of long-held grudges.

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)


File:Pacific Area - The Imperial Powers 1939 - Map.svg

The contributions of American athletes to the war effort during World War II has been well documented.  The experiences of Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Tom Landry, Ed Lummus and hundreds of others have been recognized for their impact in defeating Germany and Japan.  Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Buzz Bissinger’s latest book, THE MOSQUITO BOWL: A GAME OF LIFE AND DEATH IN WORLD WAR II chronicles events leading up to a game between the 4th and 29th Marine Regiments on Guadalcanal in late 1944 and the fate of many who fought at Tarawa, Saipan, and Okinawa.  The soldiers were made up of former All-Americans from Brown, Notre Dame and Wisconsin universities twenty of which were drafted by the National Football League.  Of the sixty-five men who played in the game, fifteen would die a few months later at Okinawa.

Bissinger, the author of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, a story of high school football in Texas brings to life the men and their military training as they prepared for the Marine assault on Okinawa.  During their preparations trash talking between the two Marine Regiments reached a fever pitch which led to what has been referred to as “the Mosquito Bowl.”  Bissinger’s narrative explores the lives of these men with insight, empathy, and a clear picture of what they were experiencing and would soon be up against.  It is a well told story of college athletes and their loss of innocence.  It begins on the playing fields of America’s colleges through their final time f to remain boys to the darkest days that would follow on Okinawa.

The book is a dichotomy in the story it tells.  First and foremost, Bissinger zeroes in on the lives of a number of individuals who developed as exceptional athletes and morphed into American Marines.  Bissinger focuses on the lives of John Marshall McLaughey, Captain of the Brown football team, played one year with the New York Giants and enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor.  Another major football star, this time as an All-American at the University of Wisconsin, David Schreiner enlisted as an officer candidate with the Marines.  Tony Butkovich, from a family of eleven, one of which was a fighter pilot, was an All-American at the University of Illinois, later at Purdue University and was drafted number one by the Cleveland Rams.  Butkovich would not make the grade as a Marine officer and became a corporal in the infantry. Bob Bauman was Butkovich’s teammate at Wisconsin and his brother Frank played at Illinois, both brothers joined the Marines.  Bob McGowan, from western Pennsylvania was a Sergeant and Squad leader who was severely wounded on Okinawa and whose story provides the reader with the feel of the terror and bloodshed of battle.  Lastly, George Murphy, Captain of the Notre Dame football team would join the others as Marines, in his case as an officer candidate. 

David Schreiner played for the Wisconsin Badgers before joining the Marines.

(David Schreiner)

The book jacket describing Bissinger’s narrative is a bit misleading.  It appears the book will concentrate on football, but its treatment goes much deeper in its exploration of a number of important topics in American history during the first half of the 20th century.  Bissinger follows the military training that the athletes experienced, but its focus is diverse.  The depression plays a prominent role in the upbringing of the Bauman brothers in a small town just south of Chicago.  The issue of immigration stands out because of its impact on the diversity of American society, but also the backlash that was created after World War I when families like the Butkovichs came to the United States from Croatia at the turn of the century.  By 1924, Congress passed the Johnson Act designed to block immigration from southern and eastern Europe.  The legislation reflected politics combined with the pseudo-science of eugenics which became very popular in the post-World War I period that argued certain groups were inferior to “white Americans.”  Daniel Okrent’s THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA is an exceptional study of American racism during that period.


Racism is a dominant theme apart from war and athletics as Bissinger explores how blacks were treated in the military.  Lynchings and murders were common in the American south and the experiences of blacks in the military revolved around demeaning jobs mostly in supply, laundries, bakeries, sanitation, ammo dumps leading to the conclusion that the United States fought for freedom in occupied Europe and the Pacific, but there would be no freedom for the 13 million Blacks living in the United States of America.  At the outset of the war there were no blacks in the Marines.


(DeOrmond “Tuss” McLaughry, football coach 1926-1940. With his son John McLaughry, coach 1959, shown with Colgate)

The military leadership used college football stars as a recruiting tool and stressed the similar values and talents that college football and the military held in common.  Exemptions for college athletes from the draft led to anger by the families of those fighting in Europe and the Pacific while many the same age enjoyed the life of a star athlete. Bissinger does an exceptional job delving into the West Point football program as they experienced their best seasons in 1944 and 1945 due to the accomplishments of exempted players “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, who were better known as “Mr. inside, and Mr. Outside.”  Their exploits would lead the Army to national championships.

Bissinger has total command of the history of the war and college athletics.  The author lists more than 100 pages of endnotes, assembled from military records, correspondence, interviews of survivors and other reportorial feats — shows up everywhere, in the numbers, in battle accounts, in the homey mundanity of letters, and a clear incisive writing style, sprinkled with humor and sarcasm which are keys to the book’s success.  As to the conduct of the war, Bissinger pulls no punches as he recounts the errors in judgement by military higher ups as it planned and carried out the amphibious landing at Tarawa which turned into a bloody disaster with 2000 casualties in the first 76 hours of the invasion.  The key to victory over Japan would be “island hopping” therefore amphibious warfare was of the utmost importance, but military strategists did not make use of all of its assets, i.e.; LVT boats as opposed to Higgins boats that could not navigate through the coral that surrounded many Pacific islands.  Bissinger’s discussions of Tarawa and the outright stupidity of General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. who commanded US forces at Okinawa can only anger the reader as it resulted in the useless deaths of so many young men.

Another important weapon Bissinger explores is that of the “flame thrower.”  On Okinawa and other islands, the Japanese benefited from their use of caves with interlocking tunnels,  a difficult problem to overcome.  The caves were challenging to penetrate by bombing so the use of napalm from flame throwers became imperative.  Despite the application of this weapon which saved many American lives, the Japanese inflicted innumerable casualties on the Americans as they fought from hill to hill.  Japanese troop strength on Okinawa was much higher than US intelligence pointed out, roughly 100,000, not the 66,000 that was estimated.  Bissinger lays out the fears and hopes of the men as they prepared and carried out their mission with horrendous results.  In the end over 250,000 people died in 82 days at Okinawa.  Of that number 50,000 were American, 20,000 Marines, 8222 from the 6th Division.  In the last quarter of the book Bissinger does justice to their memory as he lays out the battle for Okinawa, the Japanese who fought to the death, and the obstacles that the Marines had to overcome.  He lays out the story of all the men who fought at Okinawa and played in the Mosquito Bowl along with countless others.

The core of the book revolves around The Mosquito Bowl, which was a spirited, semi-organized football game on Guadalcanal.   The game, played on Christmas Eve 1944 with at least 1,500 Marines watching, is both a pretext and an organizing principle for the book, but its significance fades as Bissinger explores the fates of several participants.  Combat and other dirty aspects of warfare are ever present.  The fighting on Tarawa, Saipan, Okinawa and stories of those who never returned home point to the insanity of war, which regrettably still dominates our news cycle today as we witness Russian terrorism and atrocities in Ukraine.  The title of the book is a misnomer as there is little discussion of the game itself – more to the point the book is not about a football game but the tragedy of young men fighting and dying in wars far from home.

Smoke billows from a burning ship.


June 3, 1961:  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy sit in the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria, at the start of their historic talks. [AP/Wide World Photo]

(Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy)

Vladimir Putin’s ill-advised invasion of Ukraine last February has not produced the results that he expected.  As the battlefield situation has degenerated for Russian army due to the commitment of the Ukrainian people and its armed forces, along with western assistance the Kremlin has resorted to bombastic statements from the Russian autocrat concerning the use of nuclear weapons.  At this time there is no evidence by American intelligence that Moscow is preparing for that eventuality, however, we have learned the last few days that Russian commanders have discussed the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.  The conflict seems to produce new enhanced rhetoric on a daily basis, and the world finds itself facing a situation not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 amidst the Cold War.

A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote

(A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote “Missile Sites” on the map and marked them with an X when he was first briefed by the CIA on the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 16, 1962.)

Since the possibility of nuclear war seems unfathomable the fears of many have put western intelligence agencies on high alert.  To understand how we might solve the current impasse it might be useful to turn to Max Hastings latest book, ABYSS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, but one must remember Vladimir Putin is no Nikita Khrushchev.  The author of thirty books, most of which focus on topics related to World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, Hastings is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable historians to tackle the confrontation that ended peacefully in 1962.

Hastings recounts the history of the crisis from the viewpoints of national leaders, Soviet officers, Cuban peasants, American pilots and British peacemakers.  Hastings, success as an author has always rested upon eyewitness interviews, archival work, tape recordings, and insightful analysis – his current work is no exception.  The positions, comments, and actions of President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro among many other important personalities are on full display.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaks before reporters during a televised speech to the nation about the strategic blockade of Cuba, and his warning to the Soviet Union about missile sanctions, during the Cuban missile crisis, on October 24, 1962 in Washington, DC.

(President Kennedy addresses the American people on October 24, 1962)

Hastings offers a very thoughtful approach to the study of history while applying his immense analytical skills.  A major theme that Hastings carries throughout the narrative is that the American response to Soviet actions was based more on political considerations rather than threats to American national security.  America was not more vulnerable with missiles in Cuba because “both sides submarine-launched ballistic missiles were becoming ubiquitous realities in the oceans of the world.”  JFK is a controversial actor in the crisis according to historians.  Did he act to reassure his reelection in 1964 and burnish his anti-communist credentials  or was he the bulwark against an American military led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with members such as General Curtis LeMay.  Hastings’ conclusion is clear, JFK was a towering and inspirational figure during the crisis contributing some of its most memorable rhetoric.

The author introduces his topic by immediately delving into the Bay of Pigs fiasco which earned JFK the enmity of the Pentagon by calling off any air strikes to support the invaders.  History has shown that the decision was correct and did not allow a possible crisis to spiral out of control.  The problem that emerged is that Khrushchev could not understand the president’s lack of action.  For the Soviet Premier, the president’s indecision and indecisiveness during the invasion confirmed that JFK was weak and rife for bullying as events a year later would reflect.

Hastings correctly argues that the Kennedy brothers became Castro haters due to the Bay of Pigs, an emotion they did not feel previously.  They felt humiliated  and became obsessed with Cuba as they sought revenge – hence Operation Mongoose to get rid of Castro which Robert Kennedy was put in charge of.  As the narrative unfolds a true portrait of Castro emerges.  He was considered a beloved politician in Cuba at the time but a poor administrator.  He had overthrown Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and at the outset was a hero for his countrymen.  However, the crisis highlighted a delusional individual who at times believed his own heightened rhetoric and whose actions scared Khrushchev.

A spy photo of a medium range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed October of 1962.

(A spy photo of a medium-range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed in October of 1962.)

Once the background historical events are pursued Hastings settles in presenting an almost daily account of the crisis.  The American response is presented through the actions of the Kennedy brothers, a series of advisors, the most important of which was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, described as the “wizard of odds;” Chief of Staff, McGeorge Bundy; CIA head, John McCone; former ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn Thompson; Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs; other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a host of others.  The only foreign leader who demands a great deal of coverage in the narrative is British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who comes across as an appeaser who believed in diplomacy, an approach much different from his Suez Crisis days, and held the view that England and Europe had lived for years under the threat of Russian nuclear attack and could not accept that  missiles in Cuba was a menace for the United States.  At times it appeared that JFK humored his British counterpart, but his respect for the man evaporated quickly.

In the Soviet Union, the crisis was caused, driven, and finally resolved because of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev, a man who survived Stalin’s purges and worked his way up the Kremlin bureaucracy.  Khrushchev was an opportunist who launched the crisis without considering what would happen if his plan faltered.  In foreign policy, it is quite clear that if you start something without a clear exit strategy it probably will result in disaster.  The Soviet leader’s major errors were confusing two objectives: the defense of Cuba, and his plan to project Soviet power and threaten the United States by extending the Kremlin’s reach into the American backyard.  Further, Khrushchev believed that the missiles could be hidden from American U2 flights and once the American election was over he would spring his surprise on Washington.  When things began to unravel, Khrushchev resorted to bullying and threats dealing with nuclear war or at least a move on West Berlin.  Khrushchev engaged in unbridled adventurism, and willingly took a risk that had little or no chance of success.

Hastings’ account is balanced as he also examines the role of important Soviet officials including Defense Minister, Rodion Malinovsky who prepared the strategy to place missiles in Cuba; Anastas Mikoyan, the First Deputy of the Soviet Council of Ministers; Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin; Alexandr Alekseev, the KGB station chief in Havana who had a close relationship with Castro; Andrei Gromyko, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a number of others.

President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.

(President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.)

What sets Hastings’ account apart from other historians is his integration of the views of everyday individuals in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.  Cuban peasants, Russian workers, and American college students are all quoted as to their reactions and emotional state during the crisis.  The result is a perspective that is missing from other accounts and educates the reader as to the mindset of ordinary citizens who would pay the ultimate price if the crisis had gone sideways.

The diplomatic and military dance presented places the reader inside the ExCom Committee in Washington, the Presidium in Russia, and the seat of the Cuban government in Havana, and interactions with NATO allies.  We witness the strain on all participants, less so perhaps for Castro who seemed to seek martyrdom, and the delicate negotiations that led to a settlement.  All the tools were used to reach a settlement.  Backchannel talks, bringing in “the Wise Men” such as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, individual conversations between ordinary citizens who had influence on their governments, the role of U Thant and the United Nations, the bombastic approach advocated by the US military, and the strategic analysis of each communication are all included.  Within this context, Hastings effectively delves into a number of controversial areas including the Kennedy brothers’ distrust of the Pentagon and at times fearing they would disobey his orders, and JFK’s role in combating Pentagon pressure to launch air strikes followed by an invasion to remove the missiles and overthrow Castro.

According to Hastings JFK’s major error was expecting Khrushchev to think and act like himself.  “He assumed that the Kremlin would be deterred from shipping offensive nuclear weapons by the strength of his own public and private warnings….and its own consciousness of the USSR’s nuclear weakness.”  The debate at the heart of the crisis was JFK’s need to convince the Russian leader that his actions in fact risked nuclear war, something Khrushchev was against.  He wanted to test American resolve, not cause a nuclear conflagration.

Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy's naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.

(Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy’s naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.)

Hastings corrects a number of myths associated with the crisis.  One of the most famous was the idea that on October 24, 1962, as Soviet ships approached the quarantine line the White House held its breath as to whether they could stay the course.  In reality no merchant ship carrying weapons or troops approached anywhere near the invisible line.  Soviet ships had reversed course the previous day, only one of which was closer than 500 miles.  This was due in large part because of the weakness American naval communications.  Another area that historians have overlooked was events in the Atlantic Ocean – particularly concerning were four Soviet submarines, one carrying a nuclear warhead.  Hastings explores this aspect of the crisis, and the reader can only cringe as to what Washington did not know and the slow communication process that existed throughout the crisis.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.

(U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.)

JFK had ample opportunity to resort to military action, but staid his hand despite pressure from members of the Joint Chiefs and others.  The president was the driver of debate and became more of an “analyst-in-chief.”  He pressed his colleagues to probe the implications of any actions the United States would take and offer reasonable solutions to end the crisis.  For JFK it seemed as if he was in a chess match with Khrushchev countering each of his moves and trying to offer him a way out of the crisis he precipitated.

JS Tennant in his review of ABYSS in The Guardian, October 16, 2022 points out that “In January this year, Russia’s deputy foreign minister threatened to deploy “military assets” to Cuba if the US continued to support Ukrainian sovereignty. As has become all too apparent in the past weeks, tactical nuclear missiles are still a threat, along with chemical weapons and supersonic missiles. It’s as if Russia’s desperate scramble to maintain influence will stop at nothing and, as Hastings points out, ‘the scope for a catastrophic miscalculation is as great now as it was in 1914 Europe or in the 1962 Caribbean.’ Abyss provides chastening lessons on how easily things can spiral out of control but also how catastrophe can be averted.”

The book has arrived at a propitious moment in history as once again there is a nuclear threat from the Kremlin.  One can only hope that our current crop of leaders will strive to avoid the worst with the same fervor of JFK and Khrushchev in October 1962.

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pose outside American Embassy in Vienna on June 3, 1961.

(June 3, 1961, Vienna Summit)


Emperor Franz Joseph I, 1898 (b/w photo)

(Autro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)

At the turn of the 20th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire resembled a major power.  It had gone under major industrial changes in the previous decades, had a large standing army, and had reached a political compromise in 1867 that fostered the creation of the Dual Monarchy.  However, beneath the surface there were key issues that would contribute to its decline.  First, the empire consisted of eleven major ethno-language groups scattered across the empire: Germans, Hungarians, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovak, Slovene, Croatians, Serbs, Italians and Romanians, some loyal, but most with their own agendas particularly those of Slavic descent.  The military, though large, was partially a caste system with Austrian officers and soldiers from a diverse population.  The empire was split between an industrialized west and a rural east that produced a great deal of conflict. 

Leading this “house of cards” was Franz Joseph who came to the Austrian throne in 1848 and was a weak leader who deferred to others in decision-making.  After 1905 the empire was tied to Germany which nine years later would lead them into World War I and its final demise.  For some the history of the empire may seem boring, but through the use of historical fiction one can get an accurate portrait of Austro-Hungarian society, political upheavals, and an overall lack of unity.  Perhaps the best novel written that conveys the true nature of the empire was authored by Joseph Roth who has often been overlooked as a writer by Anglo-Saxon critics.  I came across the book, THE RADETZKY MARCH while visiting a Viennese bookstore a few years ago and learned it was considered a classic by many literary scholars with a story that follows the Slovenian Trotta dynasty through three generations emblematic of the fate of the empire itself.  The novel is about identity and belonging encompassing as Roth writes “those days before the Great War.”

(Author, Joseph Roth)

The genius of Roth’s work is his ability to capture the “bars, houses, railways, and dusty roads of Austria-Hungary through highly distinct individuals.”  Roth himself was a strong believer in the empire and made his living as a novelist and newspaper writer.  He produced sixteen novels, his best being THE RADETZKY MARCH.  When reading the book one major question struck me; how can the mundane existence of an officer in the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire be part of one of the greatest European novels of the 20th century?  After reading Roth’s work I know why.

The title itself is interesting.  The concept of the Radetzky March stems from Johann Strauss’ 1848 composition that celebrated the victory of Field Marshal Radetzky at the Battle of Custoza.  Along with the Blue Danube waltz, the piece became an unofficial Austrian national anthem.  In the novel it symbolizes the glory days of the decaying multinational empire.

The novel begins in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino, the last engagement of the second War of Italian Independence.  During the fighting the founder of the Trotta family, an infantry Lieutenant emerges as a hero for saving the life of the young Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph.  As a result of this display of bravery the wounded officer was elevated to the Order of Maria Theresa, and ennobled.  From that point on he was known as Captain Joseph Trotta of Sipolje, a Slovenian village.  Despite this honor Trotta found it difficult to adapt to his new station in life as he was now cut off from a lengthy line of his peasant ancestry.  From Roth’s description he became a competent officer, a good and loyal husband, and rejected all forms of ambition and pretense.  These attributes would dominate the Trotta dynasty in the future.

Roth applies humor, sarcasm, and insightful details into the psyche of each character.  A case in point is Joseph Trotta’s anger over his role in saving the Emperor as being inaccurate in its portrayal in children’s books.  He felt he was not the hero he was made out to be, and when he complained to the War Ministry, including the Emperor he was told to accept his portrayal whether accurate or not.  He would resign from the army, miss the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and accept a generous sum of money and a barony from the Emperor and return to working the soil, his chosen path in life.  He would go as far as discouraging his son Franz from a military career and study for a law degree instead.

Franz would go on to become a District Commissioner and his relationship with his son, Carl Joseph, would form a window into the decline of the Empire itself.  Carl Joseph’s relationship with his father is a convoluted one.  At first it appears to be founded on traditional Victorian values relating to father and son.  At times little communication or contact, but deep respect for each other persists.  As it evolves Carl Joseph becomes more autonomous and his father moves on from his duties as a parent, especially when his son contemplates leaving the army.  However, by the novels’ end they came to rely on each other for emotional support.

The Graben in the 1860s

(Vienna circa 1860-1866)

The conservative empire is exemplified by the relationship between Franz and Carl Joseph.  Strict observance, conformity, and lack of emotion would dominate their interactions throughout the novel until Carl Joseph’s crisis of conscience toward the end of the story.  In discussing this relationship Roth develops the most mundane details which in reality are signals that point to Austro-Hungarian society ranging from extra-marital affairs, the lack of letters between father and son, the portrait of Joseph Trotta that  dominates the District Commissioner’s home, to the ingredients of soup served each week at Sunday dinner. 

Roth develops a theme that subtly compares the differences in the different Trotta generations as it evolved from a conservative approach to society with all its proprieties and its ills to one of individualism and nationalism which would contribute to the weakening of the empire.  When Franz Joseph was a young Emperor and the District Commissioner’s father saved the monarch, a certain correctness was accepted by all.  In the most painful episode in the book highlighting accepted behavior, two young men are bound by the military code of honor to fight a duel to the death over an insulting remark as honor is everything in that hierarchal, monarchical world, resulting in the death of the two men.  Another stunning example of the importance of tradition occurs as officers learn of a rumor that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Bosnia.  The news encroaches upon a gathering of officers and aristocrats who elect to continue their celebration rather than consider the implications of the news.  This provoked a split among the Austrian and Hungarian officers highlighted by comments by Lieutenant Charles Joseph that they should be ashamed of their actions in such circumstances.    As time progressed and the Great War was on the horizon, the younger generation exemplified by Carl Joseph sought greater freedoms and autonomy that the older generation had difficulty coming to grips with.   Carl Joseph, against his own wishes, is part of that world, but not a good fit for it.  The conformers who believe in the system and its perpetuation require stifling human feeling and the result is the rejection of any social change which Roth presents as the brush workers problem who want revolution if conditions of employment are not improved.  In fact, by the end of the novel Carl Joseph rejected tradition by engaging in affairs with the wives of compatriots, found himself in debt from gambling at a casino at his frontier post, and resigning from the army.

(Vienna, circa, 1900)

No matter the scene or situation Roth presents characters that always seem to relate to the Trotta dynasty and how they rose from their peasant background to a barony.  The characters that Roth develops are interesting and their fundamental place in the novel is how they affect Franz and Carl Joseph.  These individuals include, Dr. Max Demant, a Jew who hated the military who was a close friend of Carl Joseph who was unaware of the affair his wife had with the youngest Trotta.  Count Wojoiech Chojnicki, a Trotta family friend who believed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had already fallen apart.  Frau Valerie von Taussig, a former beauty who ages gracefully and was romantically involved with the younger Carl Joseph.  “Old Jacque,” Franz’s manservant who served for decades as a slave and confidant.  Dr. Skovonnek, Franz’ everyday chess partner. Professor Moser, a poor artist who painted the portrait of Joseph Trotta and the Emperor who were Franz’s closest friends.

Roth’s description of the aging Franz Joseph is marvelous.  It delves deeply into the Emperor’s mindset, particularly in old age as he insists on participating and observing army maneuvers at the Russian border where Carl Joseph is posted.  Roth’s wording is precise as we witness an old man trying to evaluate his life’s work.  Commentary related to church services are indicative of Roth’s thought process and its application to the Emperor; “He had the feelings of having to pull himself together in God’s presence, as before some superior, and he was already so old!  He could have made it a little easier for me!  Thought the Emperor.  But God is even older than I am, and his ways are just as mysterious to me as maybe to all the men in my army.”

Roth loved the empire and its stagnating military.  The condition of the military is brought out by Carl Joseph’s posting to the Russian border and that and the overall plight of the empire becomes a tragedy in Roth’s mind because he believes that something could have been done to avoid the cataclysm that was approaching and in the end would result in the dissolution of the empire at Versailles.

Roth has authored a novel of the life of an officer in the Austro-Hungarian empire that must have been boring.  But it is the virtue of Roth’s style that boredom becomes interesting as a spiritual state.  It is this state that has a nostalgic charm of its own and the novel itself explains much about Europe’s past which would succumb to the battlefields of World War I.

File:Portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph in Ljubljana.JPG

(Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)